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April 2020 — Having forgotten my umbrella, I rush past people on the gray, wet streets of Brooklyn picking up groceries between my Zoom classes. I struggled to carry five full bags by myself, but I no longer felt comfortable letting my mother leave the house on her own following a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans — with the latest news of an Asian woman attacked outside her home. Having to run down the block with my hair stuck everywhere on my face not covered by a mask in fear of being late to class — again — was a great inconvenience. But a mere inconvenience was much better than the increasingly real possibility of my mother becoming a victim of a hate crime. In the worst-case scenario, I choose my mother’s safety over mine.
I have borne witness to the politicization of my ethnic and cultural identities and the disastrous consequences that have already risen as a result. When a strong stance against China became a popular campaign issue in the 2020 presidential election, I was most apprehensive about whether or not Americans would project intense disapproval of the Chinese Communist Party onto Chinese Americans. Would our nation learn from our past, or would we repeat our shameful history? I seemed to have found my answer just the other day when a close friend brought up in conversation that perhaps the key to the reinvigoration of a unified American national identity lies in politically uniting the country against China. Indeed, it seemed that my worst fears had been confirmed.
My biggest fear is that I, and many just like me, no longer have claims to our own identities — that we no longer get to decide who we are and what we stand for in the public eye. The Han Chinese ethnicity and the Chinese nationality are definitively not the same. Even so, I was taught from a very early age that to most people, including the Chinese community here in America, there is no difference. My neighbor next door likes to sing the Military Anthem of the Chinese People's Liberation Army in the evening — not because he endorses the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, but because it reminds him of the people back home. Even the CCP seems to have more of a say in defining who I am than I do — with its continuous efforts to equate its political agenda with the larger Chinese cultural heritage and values. However, the CCP isn’t the only one from whom I am reclaiming my identity.
The experiences of hyphenated Americans, such as “Chinese-Americans,” are so often reduced to popular stories of children being bullied in school for their traditional lunches and names that are too easily mispronounced because they are not conventionally “American” — as in, white.
We are always more than that.
To define hyphenated Americans by the larger American society’s alienation of us is to tell us once again that we are not Americans. We are.
I exist as a person whose role in American society is more than the perpetual foreigner, a conveniently ignored outcast until it is time to undermine the oppression of Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
Of all the places on Earth, the United States should be the last place not to understand the difference between ethnic and political identity. In a country whose nationality was born out of a hunger for freedom, liberty, and opposition to a singular ethnically-homogenous culture, why should some of its people be assumed to be followers of a distant government they have never lived under? In a country personified by a statue with the engraved words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” why are the huddled masses considered extensions of the very governments they decided to leave behind? How did celebrating Lunar New Year suddenly link me and my family to the human rights violations committed by the CCP?
It does not. We as a nation must acknowledge that by reducing some of us to only a “model minority,” we erase suffering and pit people of color against each other for the sake of glorifying whiteness. It is deeply destructive when communities are denied the right to belong in America, only finding comfort in their familiar cultural roots — cultural roots that are actively being exploited by authoritarian regimes committing relentless, heinous crimes. We cannot unify America by treating Chinese Americans as enemies of the state. Rather we must recognize all hyphenated Americans for what we are: Americans.
Ruby Huang ’24, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Leverett House.
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